The Woodbridge Police Department and the National Battle of Open Access for Citizen Journalists

It was a quiet day yesterday. I received several notices from the Connecticut Department of transportation about various motor vehicle accidents around the state, including an accident in Stratford. The Attorney General’s office sent me an email about Attorney General Blumenthal submitting to the court a proposed settlement providing around $1 million in restitution to F&S Oil Company customers. I received a press release from the Connecticut Office of State Ethics concerning court reporters “allegedly using their state positions to obtain financial gain”, including a court reporter from Orange and the City of New Haven sent a press release informing interested parties that “the Chapel Street bridge in the City's Fair Haven neighborhood has been closed temporarily for mechanical reasons. “ It is expected to reopen today. In addition, ConnCan sent out to mailings about their latest report card on Connecticut Schools.

On the national level, I received a press release from Sen. Dodd’s office concerning his letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates urging him “to halt procurement of any further Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters until an analysis of options-including an American-made alternative helicopter-has been completed”. Around the same time, I received an email from the communications director of the Connecticut Democratic Party concerning the latest polls in the U.S. Senate Race.

The U.S. Census Bureau sent a note to correspondents concerning the release of 2009 State Population Estimates. The release had been scheduled for Tuesday, but has been postponed because of the inclement weather which closed the federal government on Monday. It should come out today at noon. I also received various notices from the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice and a fascinating news release from the National Building Museum and National Capital Planning Commission about twenty-four middle school students views on the best way to design a new White House Visitor Center.

In many cases, a volunteer citizen journalist can relatively easily get information from various agencies. Unfortunately, Woodbridge is different. Last Friday, a neighbor forwarded a copy of a press release concerning two recent burglaries in town. I sent a request to be added to the distribution list for the emails of the Woodbridge Police Department Press Releases.

Yesterday, I was disappointed to receive the following reply:

We received your request, however, the Press Releases are e-mailed to our Police Commission members as a courtesy. The Press Releases appear in the New Haven Register. At this time, we will not be e-mailing Press Releases to any other outside agencies.

This raises concerns on many levels. The most immediate is public safety. If the Woodbridge Police Department is truly concerned with public safety, they should be making every effort to distribute public information to any journalist or citizen in the town, and not simply to the police commissioners and the police department’s preferred news organizations.

Likewise, there is the message of courtesy. The police department shows courtesy to commissioners but not to journalists that reside in the town. That is not a message that is good for the Police Department’s image. On a mailing list of media reformers, one person wrote that this was the dumbest thing they had ever heard and hoped that the Woodbridge Police Department was better at fighting crime that it is at handling information.

A Woodbridge resident noted that the Woodbridge Police Department does not seem to understand public relations and noted that the point of issuing press releases is to publicize activities in a consistent and efficient manner.

Then, there are questions of fact. Do the press releases appear in the New Haven Register? Most news organizations do not publish press releases directly. Instead, they are used as material for their reporters to write news stories. I’ve contacted several reporters at the New Haven Register to ask for details about how press releases from the Woodbridge Police Department are handled and am awaiting replies. A quick search online for the press release that started this discussion did not show anything at the New Haven Register. However, it did find an article in the Amity Observer, a local weekly paper. That article does not identify itself as being a press release thought it appeared to be a nearly verbatim copy of the press release.

Even if the press releases do show up in the New Haven Register, or the Amity Observer, there can be an additional lag before this information gets distributed, returning back to the public safety issue.

There is also the issue of unfair preference to some news organizations over others. This can be a subtle attempt at censorship, by not sharing information with news organizations that write critical stories of the Police Department. I believe it was protection from this sort of concern that led our forefathers to including protection of the press in the Bill of Rights.

Beyond the issues of how this action relates to freedom of the press, there are important freedom of information issues. One lawyer observed that a basic rule of government speech is that while they may not be compelled to speak, once they do they should do so in a nondiscriminatory manner. Several people encouraged me to contact the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission which I will probably do after the holidays.

Yet it is not fair to single out the Woodbridge, CT police department. I found similar stories of people dealing with local police departments in upstate New York, Virginia, and other states. Others have reported police departments that have been particular helpful in disseminating public information, including police departments in Washington State and California.

It isn’t just police departments that make efforts to restrict public information. According to Huffington Post, radio talk show host Bill Press took a job as an intern in Sen. Bernie Sanders office to better cover what is going on in the Senate after being denied he “was denied a request for media credentials from the Congressional Radio-Television Galleries”.

Numerous people noted that this is a problem that is likely to get worse before it gets better, especially as more and more downsized traditional journalists set up their own online news sites and attempt to get access. The media advocacy group Free Press is looking at this on the national level and the Citizen Media Law Project has launched the Online Media Legal Network, a project hosted by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. They are prepared to offer legal aid to online journalists in these battles.

On the one hand, I am hoping that this is just a small misunderstanding on the part of the Woodbridge Police Department and I will not have to pursue legal actions with the help of the various organizations listed above. On the other hand, if I do have to pursue this through various legal fronts, I hope that this will prove beneficial to citizen journalists around the country fighting for more open access to public information in their communities.

Have you tried gaining access to important public information? What have been your successes? What have been your challenges? How have you worked around them? Let’s get a good dialog going to discuss how we can all work together to improve government services in all our communities.